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Why I'm Testy About Tests

  • July 29, 2005
  • By Paul Kimmel
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The Best Interview I Ever Had

Maybe it’s a cliché, but the best test I ever took was an interview in Redmond for Microsoft’s National Practices Team (part of Microsoft Consulting). To get to a Redmond interview, one has to pass a phone screen followed by a phone interview. If you pass the first two interviews, then Microsoft invites you to Redmond where everyone who will be on your team subjects you to a very rigorous oral examination. These interviews last about a day and can be brutal (even though everyone is congenial).

During these interviews, you are asked about facts. You are instructed to think out loud, and if you don’t know something then you’re allowed to think and discuss the problem critically. You are asked to solve problems like why are manhole covers round? How would you move Mt. Fuji? How would you go about counting all the stars in the sky? The following was my question:

Given three barrels (one marked apples, one marked oranges, and one marked apples and oranges) that are all mislabeled, you can pull only one piece of fruit from one barrel. How would you go about determining the proper labeling of the barrels?

(The answer can be had in a Sesame Street song: [singing] one of these things is not like the other.)

During the course of the morning, I was asked hundreds of facts. But I was also asked about my accomplishments, best and worst projects, hobbies, who I was as a person, what I had done, and what I’d like to do yet—not a single multiple-choice question.

To get hired at Microsoft (at least for the job I was interviewing for), one had to get a unanimous thumbs-up. I got a thumbs-up from everyone who interviewed me but one developer. He said I seemed too much like a manager, which from developers is not a compliment. My secret belief is that he wasn’t impressed that I didn’t know what string-interning was. (Damn! Foiled by a fact again.)

The worst part about the string-interning question is that it was a pre-screening question. I’d been asked the same question during the pre-screen interview, and I forgot it when asked during the Redmond interview a week later. (String interning is how strings are stored internally to conserve memory and is why strings are immutable in .NET.) The truth: during the pre-screen I determined that string interning was beyond my control and a truly irrelevant fact except for the .NET compiler writers, so I immediately discarded the factoid.

There are so many factoids that unloading most of them daily is a necessary survival skill just to keep some room in one’s brain. Facts are one of the reasons I write books. I write all the stuff I know at a given time in a book, and then I proceed to forget most of it. If I need the fact again, I pick up one of my own books and search the index. In this way, my books become the permanent overflow storage of my brain, and it is an added bonus that I get paid to store the overflow.

Testy About Testing

I can’t tell you whether you should take a brain strain test or not. If it’s a pre-condition of a job that you want, then you have to take it. If the score is a big determinant as to whether you get a person-to-person interview and you don’t get in, don’t feel bad. The most important thing to remember is grades, pedigree, and other people can't tell you whether you will succeed or not (at least in the USA)—only you decide that.

I have to admit I am a little disappointed that I didn’t score higher than everyone else on that particular test, but that’s probably my ego talking. I am wise enough to know that I am not the smartest person on the planet and definitely not the best test taker. I used to believe I had a practically photographic memory, but that was many winters past.

I will definitely return to my insistence on not taking tests nor traveling for onsite interviews. (I work with too many companies to take tests and travel for onsite interviews as pre-conditions for collaboration.) The reason won’t be just poor test-taking skills. The truth is that by using the resources available during the test, my score would be improved noticeably. I won’t be taking tests because they are impersonal, impractical, inefficient for evaluating potential, and they promote laziness in personnel departments. When I work for a company, they probably won’t want me to be lazy, and I don’t want them to be lazy either.

How do you feel about the use of standardized testing as a screening tool for tech jobs? Post your opinion in the CodeGuru Forums.

About the Author

Paul Kimmel has written several books on object-oriented programming and .NET. Check out his upcoming book UML DeMystified from McGraw-Hill/Osborne (Spring 2005). Paul is also the founder and chief architect for Software Conceptions, Inc., founded 1990. He is available to help design and build software worldwide. You may contact him for consulting opportunities or technology questions at pkimmel@softconcepts.com. If you are interested in joining, sponsoring a meeting, or posting a job then checkout www.glugnet.org, the Web page of the Greater Lansing area Users Group for .NET.

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